Sunday, 24 November 2019

Poetry knight… The Alliterative Morte Arthure, St James’ Church

This was an evening of candle-lit re-connection with the medieval spirit of both location and subject matter; we started off sat in our pews – nursing complimentary port - and ended up standing spellbound following the three performers as they paced this ancient space playing out this eternal chivalric drama. It’s no mean feat to bring archaic language and sentiment to life but Michael Smith achieves is with a mix of painstaking diligence and pure passion. This is not to be confused with earnestness, as his work here as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is always infused with wit and a sense of mischief: this is how these stories can best be experienced, as live entertainment.

Poetry performed in public, much like silent film, finds a new dimension with the combination of audience, venue and live accompaniment, here provided by Jon Banks, a multi-instrumental medievalist who is a musical director at the Globe Theatre as well as being a noted scholar. Jon added flavour and support to the narrative sat amongst his lute, dulcimer, trumpet, percussion and, crucially, a “rain stick”!

The poem was performed by Michael Smith, Alex Young and Stuart Handysides, the three carrying torches to illustrate their scripts in the low light of St James’ , built early in the 12th Century. The church is only open four times a year and looked magical with freshly restored walls flickering in the candlelight, shadows cast over the artefacts of so much faith and hope.

Alex Young, Michael Smith,  and Stuart Handysides
The church pre-dates the poem by two centuries but not the complicated history of the Arthurian legends which, dating from the 6th Century were first encoded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1138) and which were embellished with fresh characters such as Lancelot, Percival and Yvain by French poet, Chrétien de Troyes in the later 12th Century. The Alliterative poem was penned by an unknown author and dates from about 1400 and adds the Roundtable and other elements to Monmouth’s story.

Michael has been translating the poem from its Lincolnshire dialect for some two years and the results will be published in 2020 strikingly illustrated by his original linocuts. Tonight, was the premier of the work in a theatrical setting directed by Mike Ashman, a former director of the Royal Opera House who knows a thing or two about the dramatic dynamics of myths and legends.

Mr Ashman had the players using every corner of St James, from the pulpit to the altar and they walked up and down the transept throughout the performance: theatre in the round that surrounded the audience, surprising us with action and unfolding meaning. The poem is definitely a "PG" and during key battles the players walked up and down the aisle waving their torches like swords, remarkably effective and quite startling when a bowel is pierced or a sword enters a skull mere inches from where you are standing!
Michael Smith 
After Michael Smith had set the scene and explained the background to the story, the play began with a rousing performance of early 19th Century song, All Around My Hat (I Will Wear the Green Willow), as the players sang their way the length of the church before the verses began.

This story has some less familiar episodes to the well-trodden paths of recent books and films… Arthur travels to Rome to meet the challenge of Emperor Lucius who has sent emissaries demanding fealty. Arthur has always been apart of this island’s self-definition and you only have to glance at 12th Century politics to understand the drivers for this war on mainland Europe.

Queen Guinevere is left in the care of Sir Mordred (Arthur’s nephew) as he heads off to battle and whilst he may be victorious the seeds of future defeat in the longer war for Albion are sown… Arthur’s crusade is a "just" one dedicated to overthrowing a pagan Emperor but war makes him cruel and he levels Metz with excessive force. His dreams are troubling and he fears his own pride - "surquedry" - may doom him as he looks beyond the fight for independence to becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

Sir Gawain by contrast is shown to be impeccably chivalrous earning the respect of even his deadliest foes. Arthur is not an inflexible leader, he can learn from his knights as well as from experience and dreams...
Jon Banks
All builds up to a rousing, battling finish as the body count accelerates and Arthur defines his nobility against the odds by deed and word. He has but scores of his knights against Mordred’s thousands, but right as well as might is on his side.

Whilst Arthur’s story is so familiar in terms of action what Mr Smith has done is to explain how it was felt by Britons in the 1400s… an entirely different age in which the concept of self was so different and yet in which essential human values were perhaps not so different?

All three leads gave forceful performances Mr Young so firm of voice, Mr Handysides resolute and fluent with Mr Smith leading the line with intensity and conviction; as he phased across the centuries talking the medieval walk with relish. At the finish the cold, un-heated space was warmed by an extended ovation; St James’ had been animated again as had the memory of the Once and Future King; performative history from the medieval mind-set.

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ***** A thrilling glimpse inside the medieval mind and a new appreciation of the importance of Arthurian legend from one of its oldest, most accomplished sources.

The Alliterative Morte Arthure is published in September 2020 and you can pre-order from the publisher, Unbound, website.

Here’s to more medieval adventures in 2020!
One of Michael Smith's linocuts for the new book

Saturday, 23 November 2019

The ties that bind… Thread, The Hope Theatre

A father with dementia, slowly disappearing in front of his two daughters who know that one day all his inconvenience will be as nothing compared to his absence and then, out of the blue, the threat of losing him in a way they never expected.

Freya Alderson’s play is post-Weinstein, Spacey and now even a prince… it addresses the issue of historical sex abuse not just from the point of view of moral and reputational damage but also the impact on the alleged perpetrator’s family. It traces the unfolding accusations through their reactions as the accelerant of social media brings the family to the brink with father oblivious.

Peter Gibson (Eric Carte) is an established star of stage and screen and the play opens with him holding his Oscar and reliving his acceptance speech before he shrinks in front of us to the bewildered state of advanced dementia. He is looked after by his daughters, the eldest, Vivian (Christina Balmer) is an actress on the verge of a major breakthrough and academy award nomination whilst the youngest, Margo (Maya-Nika Bewley) is a kind of Brit-Kardashian, a social media star, famous for being part of this dynasty and seemingly young beyond her years.
Christina Balmer
The women have different mothers and are a half-generation apart in age and outlook; Vivian was almost a mother to Margo as her mother’s marriage broke down whilst the latter has no experience of the years when the family struggled, Peter yet to establish himself and his first wife – the love of his life – working three jobs.

There’s a lot to unpack in Alderson’s script which is ambitious enough to try and explain how successful men operate(d) and how the women in their lives are complicit or compromised. Margo is a spoilt brat on the opening half, challenging everything without having the answers – the luxury of the younger sibling (trust me, I am that child). Vivian has the success and bearing, seeing herself as the main carer and the one who must steady the family ship. Her agent – and Peter’s long-time friend, Ian (Christopher Jenner-Cole) – is almost part of the family, a former actor who was helped a lot by Peter’s patronage. Margo teases him and persuades him to do a line or two of cocaine as inhibitions are lost and deep wounds are exposed.

Margo and Vivian argue as sister’s do but then a tweet arrives – projected on a screen that doubles as a portrait of Peter and wife Number One – in which a woman has accused Peter of abusing her. Lines are very quickly drawn with Viv all too ready to defend her Dad and Margo all too ready to believe the worst. I felt this transition was slightly contrived as the whole affair suddenly provides one with a purpose as it threatens to derail the other’s career, but that’s drama.
Christopher Jenner-Cole and Maya-Nika Bewley
The family must now not only decide on how to manage the crisis and whether their “tribe” is going to survive at all. The play picks up a fearsome head of pace as the depths of ill-feeling are finally revealed and the interplay between Bewley and Balmer is spectacular as the cliff edge approaches.
Eric Carte is superbly sad as the forlorn Peter and gives us glimpses of the glorious, confident and arrogant man he once was through flashback and the occasional sliver of coherence – it’s so poignant and a character you write off at your peril.

Christina Balmer and Maya-Nika Bewley also offer compelling performances – half-sisters who are more alike than they care to admit and Christopher Jenner-Cole is charismatic with his character still left in the wake of this powerful family turmoil.

Veronica Quilligan has marshalled her players well and the pace never lets up. Riveting!

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** Complex theatre that packs in a lot but always engages in a race to confront the reality of responsibility beyond the ties of family.

Thread plays at the Hope until 7th December, booking details on the theatre’s website.

Eric Carte

Friday, 1 November 2019

Justice through knowledge - Different from the Others, White Bear Theatre

“Love for one of the same sex is no less pure or noble than for one of the opposite… Those that say otherwise come only from ignorance and bigotry.” Dr Magnus Hirschfield

I’ve just spent the most entertaining evening with Connie Veidt, Anita Berber and Reinhold Shunzel… it was a riot as you’d expect from these Weimar legends – Connie was divine, Anita so intense and Reinhold? Well, you know Reinhold… It was quite the party and yet there was a quiet but determined doctor in the room who really caught my attention.

In 1919 Richard Oswald directed Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), the first film explicitly about homosexuality, funded by “sexologist” Dr Magnus Hirschfield, leader of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement and head of Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

After the Great War, Weimar Germany abandoned censorship allowing unprecedented freedom for artistic expression at a time when a new openness sprang across parts of Europe with, as playwright Claudio Macor says in his notes, love between men briefly being openly acceptable in Moscow and St Petersburg. Yet, even as the cabaret began in Berlin, Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code still made homosexuality illegal and contributed to the loss and wreckage of so many innocent lives. Shockingly it wasn't repealed until 1994 (after decades of amendments) which shows, if nothing else, how incredibly advanced the film was and also how brave.

 Jeremy Booth. All photos by Andreas Lambis
This is a remarkable film and one that survives only in partial form: that it exist at all given what was to come is all the more extraordinary… which is precisely where Mr Macor comes in with this passionate and smartly constructed play about the making of and sentiment behind Anders als die Andern.

The play is dedicated to Dr Magnus Hirschfield and pays due respect to this extraordinary figure who is so well played by Jeremy Booth who presents him as both wise and driven. Hirschfield was particularly affected by the suicide of a young soldier he was treating in 1896, here represented by a figure called Klaus (Simon Stallard), who cannot reconcile his desires with the pressure from society, carrying a shame of "that which nearly strangled my heart". Klaus and the Doctor are almost lovers and the death drives the Doctor to fund a film to help prevent further needless selbstmord.

There’s so much detail in the play and yet Macor’s script – and Jenny Eastop’s pacey and precise direction - moves the narrative forward with rounded characters all reflecting the legends of the remarkable film makers. Richard Oswald (Christopher Sherwood) is determined to make an entertainment as well as education – as a confrontation with Hirschfield makes clear - and there’s so much respect in the play for his achievement.

Christopher Sherwood
The play also delights in introducing the stars who silent film watchers will feel they know well yet these were formative times for the three future stars of film and they were only just starting the transition from the stage.

The notorious Anita Berber (Beth Eyre), who perfected the cross-dressed style while Marlene was still at school and wrote a book, Dances of Vice, Horror, & Ecstasy, is addicted to cocaine and Conrad Veidt (Jordan Alexander). Unfortunately for her, Connie is married and can no longer play away… Jordan has the toughest gig in playing Veidt – he has the looks but is surely way too healthy! He does very well in replicating Veidt’s crucial scene in the film, which I won’t detail… you must see it! Benjamin Garrison’s Reinhold Shunzel is suitably outrageous, dragged up and drugged up, tempting Anita with a cocktail of chloroform and ether mixed in a bowl with rose petals… do not try this at home kids! These are all people you would love to party with and I doubt they’re lilies gilded in even the slightest way!

Beth Eyre *is* Anita Berber
Kurt Giese (Simon Stallard) is a version of original star Kurt Sivers who played the young violinist who takes up lessons with Veidt’s character before the two fall in love. In the play Kurt falls for the Doctor and is an extension of his true passion that ultimately has to be denied: does he love the character played by Kurt of the actor himself and does the actor love the writer or the man?

Dr Hirschfield is able to place his responsibilities to educate above his own happiness subjugating his desires in service to the greater good and whilst the play diverges from the actuality as it progresses, it does so in the cause of illuminating the central themes. The Doctor is almost possessed with modern sensibilities but that’s all the better to counterpoint the sexual crisis of the time and, for much of recent history.

Benjamin Garrison
Hirschfeld played himself in the film as he tried to explain sexuality as natural and no reason for approbation: “… he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime…” Unfortunately, after a year of screenings Europe-wide, censorship was re-introduced and things were only to get harder as Germany drifted towards tragedy; first the books and films were burned and people were to follow.

Macor’s play works, much as the film, by informing and entertaining; as with his earlier biography of William Haines he is adept at bringing characters to life and very strong on the romance and steadfast friendships which enable truth to survive in the face of oppressive ignorance. As Hirschfeld said: “You have to keep living; live to change the prejudices... …restore the honour of this man… and all those who came before him, and all those to come after him. Justice through knowledge!”

Different from the Others plays at the White Bear until 16th November and I would heartily recommend it to all, you don't need to know the film to understand the eternal truths on show: get those tickets while they’re hot.

IThankYou Theatre rating: **** An astonishing story told with fierce sincerity and economy with a super cast who succeed in convincing as film stars and as elements of the most human of stories.. Go see it and wonder how brave this film was in 1919 and, indeed, why its story remains so vital a century later.

All photos by Andreas Lambis